Secrets Of Why Direct Mail Works

Direct mail still works whether you want it to or not, which is why you’ll continue to get subscription requests, membership invitations, donation pleas, and coupons every day the mail runs. Here’s a list of tricks direct mail marketers use to increase the odds that their mailings will be opened. It’s written for marketers, but in the advertising arms race everything is fair game, so we felt it was worth showing Consumerist readers as well.

To begin with, direct mail marketers are urged to get personal: they should leverage every bit of data they have on you and incorporate it in a way that shows that they get you. “The closer you get to something that resembles a personal letter, the higher your response rate is going to be.” For some reason, signatures that are in blue ink work better than ones in black, we imagine because they subtly look more personalized and less machine-printed.

Marketers also put lots of work into an appealing teaser. Lists with numbers continue to be among the most successful for generating a response, which is why you also see them on news sites all across the web—including here, we’ll admit it. (There’s just something fundamentally appealing about a specific number of items on a list, apparently.)

Larger envelopes and card-shaped envelopes get opened more, as do envelopes with windows.

Among the sneakiest tricks are things like addressing the envelope by hand, using a real stamp over metered postage, and—worst of all—making it look, even if only subconsciously, like an invitation.

Everyone likes to be invited to a party or events, so take that into account when designing your direct mail envelope. “Envelopes that look like an invitation tend to work really well,” Willingham says. “Especially if you use a live stamp and no return address, because that gives the piece the look of personal correspondence.”

Of course, if you’re a marketer lurking on our site, you already know all of these things, so maybe you should instead read this list of ways to make your next direct mailing less damaging to the environment and less annoying to your prospects.

“9 1/2 Ways — To Get Customers to Open Your Direct Mail” [Kiplinger Business Resource Center]
“5 tips for better direct mail” [Trump University] (!)
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. humphrmi says:

    I would think that faking personal letters, invitations, valid bills or checks (i.e. window envelopes) may help get the pitch opened, but doesn’t do anything for making sales. When you think you have an invitation, open it, and are “invited” to open your wallet, I would hope that most people feel like they’ve been duped and throw it in the trash.

  2. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    I open all my junk mail.
    That’s so I can shred every piece of that crap with my name and/or address on it!
    My shredder can’t handle unopened junk mail.

  3. Namilia says:

    The only good that direct mail does is provide me packaging material and keep mail cost down (the USPS claims that supposedly direct mail keeps the cost of first class mail down because most mail pieces they now carry is direct mail since personal correspondence had largely moved to e-mail.)

  4. ptkdude says:

    DAMN! I fall for that fake-wine-stained invitation everytime. It’s those alcoholic siblings I have.

  5. JayDeEm says:

    My personal favorites are the envelopes with ‘New PIN Enclosed’ printed on the envelope, which is always a mortgage offer or something similar. Sensitive information like that always comes in very discrete envelopes. Other shady tactics I have seen are the ones that masquerade as a jury summons or social security statement.

    Shred, shred, shred…

  6. rdm24 says:

    Junk mail works because the cost of mailing it is so heavily subsidized by John Q. Taxpayer.

  7. Adam Hyland says:


    the chance that they will make a sale jumps ASTRONOMICALLY when the letter gets opened, like it or not. It might not jump for YOU, but it does on average.

  8. Bay State Darren says:

    Kind of of topic but I’m curious: Am I the only one who’s ever caught themselves/been noticed by others accidentally calling junk snail-mail “spam”?

  9. humphrmi says:

    @Hyland: I guess, whatever. Rules for making sales:

    1. Patronize your potential clientel
    2. Sell them crap
    3. Profit

    Oh well, I guess P.T. Barnum was right.

  10. Namilia says:

    @rdm24: Not anymore. When the United States Post Office Department became the United States Postal Service, it became basically a government-run monopolized company. It receives NO tax money, so the whole “my money pays for your junk mail” falls apart.

  11. FightOnTrojans says:

    @rdm24: Explain how? I’ve always heard that the USPS is one of the few (only?) federal agencies that is self-funded and uses no tax dollars whatsoever. Or am I getting them confused with someone else?

  12. LSonnenhimmer says:

    Handwriting does work check out these two sneaky
    samples at this blog.
    [] and []
    Its the same blog with two samples.

  13. robdew2 says:

    The USPS is just another branch of the US government masquerading as a “service” company. If you want mail delivered, you have no alternative — the USPS has a legislated monopoly on first class mail.

    The USPS is absolutely positively NOT SELF-funded, as it cannot go out of business. They can run in the red forever and still exist.

    Finally, I would really like to see an analysis of the “junk mail subsidizes first class” statement that takes into account disposal costs for junk mail.

    The entire USPS as an entity is absurd and antiquated.

  14. badgeman46 says:

    @robdew2: The USPS is actually really good at what they do. And at 41 cents, still the cheapest postage in the world, even with high fuel prices. Do you know that DHL, FEDEX, UPS, etc all use the USPS to move their packagages? If you really want a government entity that fits your description, see AMTRAK. But the post office is extremely efficent!

  15. roche says:

    The one thing that really f****** bugs me is the superscription cards to subscribe to a magazine they mailed me that I obviously already subscribe to.

  16. DallasDMD says:

    @badgeman46: Actually, those carriers, with the exception of DHL’s special USPS delivery option, all have their own transport network, planes, railcars, sorting, and delivery.

  17. Namilia says:

    @robdew2: This is from the FAQs on the USPS Website. They like to call bulk or junk mail “Standard mail”

    “Standard Mail plays an important role in keeping rates for other classes of mail affordable. The United States Postal Service is a volume-oriented operation with high fixed costs. Since the substantial volume of Standard Mail spreads the cost of operating our universal postal system over more pieces of mail, it lowers the cost of delivering the average mail piece.

    It is true that rates for Standard Mail are less than those for First-Class Mail. This is because it is less costly to handle. It must be presorted, sacked, labeled and delivered to the Post Office by the mailer. Standard Mail is also given deferred service in handling and is not forwarded; nor returned to the sender unless the mailer has agreed in advance to pay additional postage.”


    “The United States Postal Service is totally self-supporting. It is an independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States.

    * Since 1982, all income is derived from the sale of stamps and not from taxes.
    * The Postal Service processes 183 billion pieces of mail a year and delivers 43% of the worlds mail while offering one of the lower-cost First-Class postage of any industrialized nation.
    * The USPS continues to offer lower cost First-Class Mail postage than any other industrialized nation, and has been self-supporting since 1982.
    * All income is generated from the sale of stamps and related services.”

  18. DAK says:

    @Namilia: That’s all true. Here’s another secret – Any time the price of a 1st class stamp goes up, the cost to a direct mailer goes up even more. When 1st class letters went to $0.41 earlier this year, direct mail prices in some cases went up by as much as 30% depending on the size, weight, and quantity of pieces mailed. Direct mail is NOT cheap. If you get something from a direct mail outfit, you best believe they have a very good reason for thinking you might open it.

  19. Nytmare says:

    Direct marketers are in the con business. Once they’ve convinced their clients and even themselves about what they think they know works best, it no longer matters whether or not it’s true. So they all follow the same patterns, which makes their junk handily recognizable from the first example.

  20. XianZomby says:

    I shred everything, unopened, that doesn’t come from mom or the companies I pay bills to.

  21. mac-phisto says:

    i always chuckle at those “personal” invitations for me (or current resident).

    a lot of usps haters out there. fine with me – you keep paying the brown $18 to mail a letter & i’ll send mine priority for under $5 & it’ll get there just as fast.

    incidentally, not only is the usps NOT federally funded, they were actually (in a way) subsidizing the federal government (at least until passage of the postal accountability and enhancement act less than a year ago). that act reformed a number of practices that were causing the overfunding of a retirement escrow held in trust by the u.s. treasury, as well as repealing a requirement that the usps pay military pensions to postal employees instead of the treasury.

    so, no, your tax dollars still aren’t paying for dill. meanwhile, 41 cents still gets your letter anywhere in the us within a few days.

  22. jasonorl says:

    My pet peeve is when I get junk mail from a bank I already have an account with and they label the envelope “Important account information enclosed” and all it contains is some additional product they want to sell me. I have to open it to make sure it isn’t some new terms and conditions that may effect my account. Any additonal product they are trying to sell should not be labeled in this manner as it is highly deceptive and erodes any trust I may have when I receive mail from them labeled as “important”.

  23. LAGirl says:

    i don’t fall for any of their cheesy gimmicks. it all gets shredded + filed in the same place: the recycling bin.

  24. Michael Belisle says:

    I’m confused here. What exactly is the advertising arms race? That if direct marketers target a piece that appeals to me, that I should shred it out of principle? How dare they send me something that I might actually be interested in?

  25. BigNutty says:

    The best envelopes are made to look like government or treasury checks. Even though it is illegal, it continues today and guarantees an “open”.

    I tried Direct Mail Marketing for a product a long time ago and it did rather well. I had to wait to get all the money first, then purchase what I was selling, which the USPS did not like when complaints started to come in. But I did deliver, just a little late.

  26. it5five says:

    I work for the USPS at an encoding center. My job is to make sure letters that are otherwise unreadable by the computer sorting machines get to their destination.

    Almost every piece of mail we work with is standard/bulk/junk mail. Annoying.

  27. Kierst_thara says:

    I still don’t understand how direct mail “works”, because I can never picture myself or anyone I know actually wanting to purchase any of the crap that any of this snail spam is shilling. Same goes for digital spam too.

    They wouldn’t send this stuff out if it didn’t get a response though, even it if it is only a tiny percentage. It makes me want to go punch the morons who are making the rest of us suffer, just because they can’t resist the pitch for some Ch3ap V14GR4!!1, or another stupid Capital One card.

  28. shaunirving says:

    For the past six years, direct mail has put food on my table. And that’s something I’m proud of as a marketer.

    What’s great about DM is that the response you get from a mailing is quantifiable; if you spend X amount of dollars on a mailing, you are virtually guaranteed to get a response of Y. Billboards, broadcast and print are just the pretty faces of advertising… in my opinion, DM is where the real work is done.

    What’s the standard response rate to a junk mailing? 3%, if you’re good. Which means even if 97 out of 100 people send your piece straight to the trashcan, you’ve made a profit. The response needed is even lower for credit card offers to be profitable; 1-2% will suffice. That’s why you get so many of them.

    You can call those invitations trickery, but companies do them because they work. Maybe they bring half a point lift in response, but that can mean thousands of dollars in additional profit for companies. I’ve seen a lot of poorly executed ones… but a well-done, highly-personal invite will outpull a standard letter/reply most of the time (assuming it’s appropriate for the product).

    Also realize that every aspect of a good direct mail package (paper stock, signature placement, stickers, even the positioning of the stamp) has been thought out and tested in your mailbox. Even if you never open your junk mail, you’re giving marketers the information they need to make more effective mailings.

    Companies use direct mail because direct mail works. It allows them to give focused messages to targeted audiences instead of hitting everyone at once and seeing who bites (like television). It’s not the jazziest or most environmentally friendly marketing tactic, true. But it’s the one that’s the most effective.

  29. bohemian says:

    The fake checks, personal letter, faux important documents stuff goes straight in the shredder. The only “junk mail” I even bother to read is the Lowes circular, and things like Bed Bath & Beyond (usually has a coupon). The only reason I read those is because I actually want them coming here.

  30. SadSam says:

    As much time as you spend shredding, you ought to consider opting out of credit card offers, junk mail, etc. You can also take a few minutes to contact the companies that you do biz with and tell them to stop sending crap. I’ve cut down my junk mail by 90%.

  31. girly says:

    I received a letter for subscribing to the Wall Street Journal that curiously stated “DO NOT BEND” in red letters (pseudo stamp?) on the envelope–for no reason.

    Not that I would be excited if there was a reason, it was just annoying.

  32. Saboth says:

    Heh I work for a company that is one of the most personalized direct mail companies in America (very small). You’d be surprised the tricks they have…they get people to send us fonts of their handwriting and we can print letters in “their handwriting”, we use hundreds of people to handwrite certain jobs…we use stamps instead of meter…etc. One of the best letters that sticks out in my mind is a letter that started off: “excuse my handwriting, but I felt the need to write this to you personally”…but it was a script font and this person wrote nothing (this was a politician btw).

  33. savvy9999 says:

    I’ll open it if I’m pretty sure there’s a prize inside. Charities usually send good ones– stickers, free return-address labels, that sort of thing.

    I know they’re trying to guilt me into sending them a $50 check for 12 cents worth of stickers, but it just isn’t gonna work.

  34. girly says:

    @Saboth: It is usually pretty obvious, though, when letters have been printed in a ‘handwritten’ font.

  35. KillingMyBrainCells says:

    Wonder if you can put “return to sender” and throw it back in the mailbox

  36. lazyazz says:

    For those who think the USPS is self-supporting:


  37. Chairman-Meow says:

    Whenever I get a marketing letter that is faked so that I will open it, I make 200% sure that business will never, ever, EVER get my business!

    If they are engaging in deceptive practices in order for me to notice, then god-knows what they will do once they have my business.


  38. @humphrmi: I get absolutely furious about the ones that try to look like “real” mail.

    I like getting catalogs (I love “window shopping” in them) and I don’t mind circulars for local sales.

    Most of the direct mail I get is from local places drumming up business. In which case the BEST thing they can do is prominently put their logo on the envelope, ideally with some indication of what’s inside. When I get something with a local service station logo on it that says “20% off Oil Change in November” on the envelope, THAT’S what I’m going to open because, hey, I’m always looking for a good price on an oil change, and I’m not so enamored of anybody yet that I’m loyal to them.

    If it’s local, it’s obviously advertising, and it provides either coupons or information on prices and services, THAT’S what I’m going to read and THAT’s the direct mailing that’s likely to get my business. That’s when I actually feel like marketing is doing ME a service, alerting me to local companies I might not have known about and helping me find deals or compare rates.

    (I absolutely ADORE those “local values” mailers. We try new restaurants all the time when they advertise in that thing.)

  39. Article: “”Every niche audience you mail to has a different level of sophistication and gets exposed to different levels of direct mail, so you have to adapt your envelopes to who you’re talking to,” he says.”

    Apparently direct advertisers are badly misjudging my level of sophistication, because most of the stuff that uses the other 8 1/2 tricks on Kiplinger’s list just looks clumsy and infantile to me, as if someone took half a marketing class in college before dropping out, and most of it just irritates me and makes me resolved not to do business with those companies.

  40. LiC says:

    …the postage stamp always gets me. I’ll read it, but then I throw it away.

  41. hapless says:


    The other way around is also true. Lots and lots and lots of USPS mail is delivered to USPS stations by FedEx and DHL. The USPS distribution and sorting network is so bad that they offer deep discounts to people who do the sorting and distribution themselves. Those discounts are so deep that FedEx and DHL can offer that as a service and still make a profit!

  42. JPropaganda says:

    Just because I’m a marketer doesn’t mean I’m not also a consumer.

    Just saying